One of the curious hockey fan memes in recent years is the repeated assertion that the 1980s represented the pinnacle of the sport, and that contemporary hockey is but a pale imitation of those glory years. Often, those who are asserting this are too young to remember much about the 1980s, and they’re likely just parroting something they heard from a 30-something sportswriter or commentator. I can’t remember who said it, but there’s a saying about how the “golden age” of any sport is whenever the observer was ten years old. No sport ever seems so pure and so exciting as when you first discover it and don’t yet have a sense of perspective. So it follows that the Gen-X types who now predominate in sports commentary would view that era as golden.
I don’t necessarily disagree that the free-wheeling 6-5 games of the 1980s have an excitement that is sometimes lacking in the scouted, videotaped, goalie coached left-wing locked hockey that came to rule in the latter half of the 1990s. But I’m also old enough to remember the 1980s, and to remember the hockey commentariat of that era, who mostly grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, insisting that the quality of play had declined precipitously since the days of their precious “Original Six.” “Doesn’t anyone know how to play defense anymore?!,” they thundered, “Whatever happened to the tough, tight-checking 2-1 games?” How often did we hear it opined that Wayne Gretzky would have been playing in the AHL had he been born thirty years earlier, because such a wimpy, defensively-impaired forward never could have survived in the no guts, no glory 1950s?
I was remembering this because just recently I was reading Riding on the Roar of the Crowd, edited by David Gowdey. It’s a collection that came out in the late 1980s, and is a sort of self-conscious attempt to give hockey the same sort of literary/cerebral cachet that baseball perpetually enjoys. It’s an uneven collection on the whole, but there’s a piece in there written by Hugh MacLennan (of Two Solitudes fame) in which he observes a Canadiens -Wings game in the early 1950s. This passage caught my eye:
With the game opened up by the long forward pass, it was now speeded up beyond the point of maximum beauty and skill. Coaches now use four different forward lines and sometimes add a few specialty players for good measure. Often a forward stays on the ice for less than a minute at a time. During that minute he skates frantically, harrying the star he is sent out to check. It is like sending a relay team of sprinters out to defeat Roger Bannister in a mile run. In this hurry scurry hockey, stick handling no longer seems as essential as it once was, and the pace can be stepped up so fast that a true passing pattern cannot be developed. The NHL authorities insist that the modern game is so fast that the old-timers couldn’t compete with it. So it is. But that argument proves only that two second-raters in any sport can beat a single first-rater. The real reason for the speedup has been the conviction that it carries more crowd appeal. Perhaps it does — to those who don’t understand the fine points of hockey. But few who grew up with the game have been convinced that this new style is as satisfactory as the old one in which patterned rushes swept the rink from end to end.
Which is to say that the hockey of the 1950s — that O6 golden era — can’t hold a candle to the golden age of the 1930s. So either hockey’s just been going steadily downhill since it was invented, or the game has changed and evolved over time, and we old farts (of any generation) have a hard time accepting that, so we rant about how the game now can’t possibly match the game from when we were young, and anyone who says otherwise must not really understand hockey. The more things change…
(Your music still sucks, kids.)